Skinwalkers, XXX

Nathan coughed, choking. He stumbled mentally as well, in the absence of the quick-thought and decisive actions to which he was accustomed. Shin merely stood, waiting, watching; prepared to do so until Nathan answered to his satisfaction.

“Well, I …” Nathan began; stopped. “How…?” was another attempt. “Shin, I …?” He met his friend’s expectant gaze and abandoned most of his excuses. Beyond Shin, he saw the functional food station. He considered the stolen sensory modules and recalled many wise, subtle looks Shin had cast his way during past conversations. How could I have been so stupid?

Shin’s half-smile pulled at his serious expression as if he could read Nathan’s thoughts, and fully agreed with them.

“You saw the skin?” Nathan asked after the half-moment’s silence.

“Yup.”

“What about the comm-?”

“One on your bed got a note when I was stepping past your lazy, tart-eating corps.”

“Huh.”

Shin’s smile grew more pleased than humored. “No amount of theatrics study can replace good, old-fashioned observation.” Folding his arms, he repeated, “So, why, Nathaniel?”

Nathan’s brain came out of its reverie in a snap, quickly making up for its earlier behavior. He cast about, dithered, shrugged, and then admitted, “Nothing much. I tried for a job.” Feigning some embarrassment, he added, “It was at Carapace.”

Shin’s eyes widened and his mouth nearly dropped open. “Oh.”

“Yeah,” Nathan continued. “Trying to rise up a little is all.”

Shin was quiet for half a moment, no doubt recalling Nathan’s anxiety en route to the job precycle. “And the extra comm?” he asked.

“Aren’t we fresh early on?!” Nathan teased. He paused, folding his arms, pretending consideration of the matter. After a jiff, he breathed in, then sighed loudly. “Nothing big, really. I worried about the work files on the old one.”

“Oh.” Shin turned this information over in his mind. “So…” he paused. “You were avoiding the stench of Ware Tech association.”

Carefully, Nathan nodded.

“Ha!” his friend said. “And I thought you were turning into a crime lord or something!”

“What?!” Nathan was truly surprised by this assumption, and showed it.

Shin chuckled a bit more, then trailed off to another awkward silence. He looked at his impressive display of illegal electronics. “Damn.”

“What?”

“Well…” Shin rubbed the back of his head. “Now what am I gonna do with them?”

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XXIX.
Read to Skinwalkers, XXXI.

Feeling lost? Go back to the very beginning with Skinwalkers, I.

Skinwalkers, XXIX

“You’d better take that,” Nathan said. “I’m fat.”

Shin laughed. “You know that used to mean -”

“Yeah.” Nathan smiled. “I know.” Patting his abdomen, he said, “I ate the tartlet after a full midmeal bundle, so I might be that definition, too.”

They both stared at the hot food, their levity evaporating with the steam. For a moment, neither moved. Neither spoke. The air between and around the two friends filled instead with a thousand unspoken questions, of potential connections that neither wished to initiate.

Nathan moved first, turning to glance at Shin’s impressive collection of stolen sensory modules. “So, what’s your plan with the mods?”

Shin eyed them as well. Sighed. “I, um, well… I thought to sell them and make enough to stick around.” He rubbed the back of his head and shuffled his feet. “Don’t really know the right contact, though.”

“Hmm.”

Shin stopped shuffling and looked slyly at Nathan. “You wouldn’t know anyone, would ya?”

Now Nathan shifted uncomfortably. He did, but also knew the potential risk that awaited those who thought to walk illegal paths. In fact, he was only just seeing the crumbling edges of the business deal he’d made with Franks, one he’d felt confident he could handle.

“Nathaniel?”

Shin’s anxious query, his concerned look brought Nathan back to the situation at hand. “I don’t think it’s as easy as you think it might be…” Nathan began. His gaze flitted to Shin’s face, but his friend seemed bemused.

“Well, I don’t think it’s a simple citystroll down to Wal-Bank or something!”

“Sure, it’s just that -”

“Nathaniel.” Shin’s smile became a piercing expression. “Let’s get real.” He straightened, all pretense gone.

Nathan, riveted, subconsciously held his breath.

“I’ve got some real cred here,” Shin began.

Nathan let out a little air.

“I need a way to charge in.”

Nathan relaxed a bit more.

“Really, though,” Shin said, “I think we need to address the big questions. Like, why do you have two comms, a fresh skin, and the insistence to keep this all to yourself?”

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XXVIII.
Read to Skinwalkers, XXX.

Skinwalkers, XXVIII

Nathan scuttled nearer the cannibalized sensory modules as his friend got right to work. Before he fully settled onto the hard ground, however, something flew through the air and smacked him on his shoulder. It was the last meal bundle. “What the-” he began, looking up in time to see the tartlet falling toward him as well. In startled automatic response, he caught it.

“Smooth,” Shin said, glancing over. He laughed, deactivated power to the area, and began removing restraining bolts with the autodrill.

Nathan relaxed into a sitting position on the hard floor and watched Shin. He attempted to eat the food station’s final offering, and was not surprised to find the tartlet as tasteless as the rest. “Good effort,” he told the machine, mock-toasting it with the singed dessert.

“I can quit, you know,” Shin replied, in a bit of a grunt. His left hand was up inside the wall, twisting his back in odd convulsions. His gaze flitted to the scanscreen clutched between his right hand and the wall, checking to see when he made the appropriate connection. “There!” Dropping the scanscreen to dangle from a twist of wires, he marched to his satchel and pulled out a few more tools.

“Hey!” Nathan exclaimed, as Shin trod heavily very near to Nathan’s slipshod feet in passing.

Shin feigned innocence; began adjusting an interior mechanism. “Soon’s you’re done, sleeper, get over here.”

Although he’d had no desire to finish it, Nathan took a deliberate, minuscule bite of the tartlet. He kept his expression empty, in an overall appearance of nonchalance. Another nibble. Then another.

Shin stopped, turned, and put his hand on his hip. One of his eyebrows drew upwards as his mouth puckered in a twist. He even tapped a foot. The worn soles echoed dully in the near-empty apartment.

The treat in Nathan’s hand proved too small to keep him from action for long. Besides, the suncycle was moving on and he needed to rest. His wristwatch beeped in agreement.

“What was that?” Shin asked, saw the watch, raised a truly curious face to Nathan’s.

“A wristwatch.”

“Well, obviou-”

“Whatcha need me for?” Nathan interrupted. He rose and walked to stand near his friend, waiting.

Shin drew in a breath, a bit hurt, but not pressing the question. “Drag the tools closer, if you can.” Grunting, Nathan complied. Shin worked in near silence for half a tick, keeping further comments restricted to which tool he needed or whether he wanted Nathan to support a crucial piece.

“I’m trustly, you know,” he said, finally. His focus shifted briefly to meet Nathan’s eye, then back to the screen.

Nathan sighed. “I know.” He pushed tantalizing thoughts of forever friendships and open trust far from his imaginations, and left the conversation where it was.

“Time for the cover again,” Shin said. They hefted it in place and secured it. Shin reactivated power and the machine defied Nathan’s gloomy expectations by whirring to life. They could hear the cooling mechanism humming, even more quietly than it had before. Shin smiled. “Try it.”

Doubtful of the outcome, Nathan leaned in and pressed the Midmeal button. An indistinct whir of gears came to him from the food station, and a countdown lit up the display. “I didn’t know it could do that!” He said, and laughed.

Shin smiled a ghost of his usual expression.

*Ding* sang the machine, and a perfectly-prepared meal bundle landed in the vending area. It was even steaming.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XXVII.
Read to Skinwalkers, XXIX.

Skinwalkers, XXVII

Nathan spent his premeal moment chewing and working through the stages of grieving, for his food station. He delighted in doing so, since he’d learned the stages from a mindagent to cope with his father’s passing. Applying them to an equally soulless but more useful machine was the perfect, “Shuck you!” the old man deserved.

He had just determined to prise open the cover and sell the contents before they rotted, when his apartment notified him of Shin’s arrival. “Access,” he told the security, not moving from his position on the hard floor. Half a jiff after hearing the rush of outside ambiance, Nathan was rewarded with the appearance of his old work friend yet again.

“Missed me?”

Nathan smiled and stretched out his legs. “Yeah. I needed to tug a bit and remembered your endshift show.”

Shin laughed. “No thanks!” He stopped within Nathan’s outspread legs, stretched, and dropped a bulging satchel with every appearance of a feigned accident.

“Hey!” Nathan automatically sat up straighter against the wall.

“What?” Shin answered innocently. He walked over to the wall, whistled at the dead station and its offerings, grabbed a bundle, and sunk down next to Nathan to eat it. “Did it ever make tasty meals?” he said whilst attempting to bite into the singed part.

“Not really.”

“Hm.”

After a moment, Nathan turned to his friend. “You still have your tools?”

Shin grunted. Chewed.

“I thought to dig out the other meals. Sell them.”

Grunt. Chew.

“All right, maybe just throw them at a few dwellers.” He couldn’t read anything committal on Shin’s face. “You have them or no?”

Sighing around a bulging mouthful, Shin sat up and leaned toward his satchel. He drew it toward them and opened the top. His eyebrows lifted slightly in smug humor as he pulled out an autodrill, electrical supports, fasteners, and a scanscreen. Nathan gasped. Before he could verbally react, however, Shin swallowed and his face broke into that sarcastic half-smile. Reaching back in, he further extricated around ten wire-wrapped circuit boards and laid them in a neat line nearer to Nathan’s sleeping area.

“Are those…?” Nathan began, but didn’t finish. He knew what they were, from the articles he’d read when street dwellers cannibalized the autoads a couple of planetcycles ago.

None my bizness,” Shin imitated smugly, matching the tone and delivery of the worker who’d snapped at them just that premeal. “Now,” he said in his own voice, “Let’s see about fixing your station. Maybe I can even get it to make food.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XXVI.
Read to Skinwalkers, XXVII.

Skinwalkers, XXVI

Nathan stared at the message display far longer than necessary. Carapace’s truncated opening line drifted harmlessly above the tiny comm: N. Reed, We request…

A hundred tiny, useless details pulled at his attention as he felt his mind attempt to avoid whatever the rest of the text might be. His bed, as always, was unmade and carried a faint smell. The apartment was dim; was that vermin he heard? A light glowed from the edges of the night stand’s hidden drawer where he’d stashed the other, still-lit comm. The shower dripped. The security beeped. An air system lamely whirred.

Finally, he extended his left hand forward. Pantomiming a grabbing motion, Nathan pulled the Carapace text from its position; spreading the same hand outward, he maximized the airborne display.

N. Reed, We request timely response to the following action item: Secondary Interview. Set for Suncycle 3.14 1300. Team lead inpracticum.

The lungful of sustaining air he’d held onto came out slowly. He blinked. He couldn’t believe it, even with the success he’d felt after the preliminary interview precycle. He had passed the first test. They wanted him back, postcycle. He hoped he’d have enough energy after another full work session, a short rest between, and reskinning.

This second round would also be much more difficult, of course. It was one thing to read and respond to three executives; quite another to demonstrate his managerial and technical talents before an entire team with those three executives as likely audience.

His Midpath theatrics professor had been right, after all, in declaring their exercises to be only that. Nathan hadn’t believed her at the time. All four paltry students attending had felt her tests impossible. They’d been in public, lines fully committed, all while reading the audience response.

“Touché, Madame Dremé,” he told the empty room. Sighing, he added, “Display.” The messages returned to only show on the comm’s small screen.

Feeling utterly drained, he once again pushed the hidden knob and withdrew his work comm. He manually deactivated the light and returned it amongst the other memories stored there. The watch beeped. Just before the drawer closed, he removed it and strapped it onto his right wrist.

His stomach rumbled in hunger. His grandfather’s watch was antiquated, but correct: mealtime.

Grumbling enough to match his stomach, Nathan stumbled over the few steps between the bed and his food station. This time, he selected the pre-programmed Midmeal button and stood in usual, silent prayer as it ground and clunked through selections. The machine stopped after a few jiffs without his food appearing. He smacked the front, the side, then the supply chute.

A noise like an outlands beast clawing back to life came from the wall. Lights blinked back on and a singed bundle dropped into place. Half a jiff later, another singed bundle fell. Then another. Just before succumbing to permanent technical failure, a tiny tartlet -also singed- completed the food station’s final offerings.

“Zut.” If Franks was on better terms, he’d have been able to pass the extra food onto him -maybe even for some charge.

Nathan looked up at Sirius Sustenance Supply’s tarnished bracket still proudly attached to the top of his dead food source. He didn’t have time or charge for this. Grabbing the most edible-looking package, he bit off a chunk and returned to the sleeping area. He dropped his comm on the bed and removed the work one.

“Shin,” he told it, actually praying now. Please answer, please answer, please answer, sang his thoughts.

“Nathaniel?” Shin’s voice came through. Nathan released a silent, Thank you, with his relieved sigh. “Ever heard of messaging, you antique?”

“Yeah,” Nathan retorted, “You’re the one answering.”

Shin paused. “Hm.”

“Listen, I need a favor.”

“Hm?”

“My food station just died, but it dumped out three extra meals.”

“Hm?” Shin’s tone increased in interest.

“Yeah, I thought you might know someone who could use them.”

“I’ll be there. Message me location.” Nathan could hear him laughing as the call cut off.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XXV.
Read to Skinwalkers, XXVII.

 

Skinwalkers, XIV

“BOY! Where are you, Boy?!”

Nathan cowered in the darkness, feeling every bit of his powerlessness as he heard his father stomping down the hallway. The bunk above him squeaked slightly as its occupant moved closer to the wall; the same wall Nathan pushed against in desperation.

The bedroom door slammed open with the force of an angry bull. Darkness spilled into darkness, but Nathan could still make out his father’s shadowy outline in the doorway. “I asked you a question!” The bull bellowed, then it lunged –

*Bee-bee-beep!* *Bee-bee-beep!* *Bee-bee-beep!*

Nathan sat up, sweating and gasping. His sheets twisted restrictively around his shaking body. His bedroom was pitch-dark, with the exception of his flashing comm. Like the small child he had just woken from, he scrabbled to its beeping, blinking safety.

“Light! Light!” He demanded, grasping it. Immediately, the dark was dispelled by both the bright beam from his device and the dim spread of the fixture overhead. To be certain, he panned the comm around each corner the cheap lighting did not quite reach. There was nothing.

“Alarm,” he said, finally silencing the noise. He calmed his breathing, his thoughts, his pulse, his position. Just a dream, he reminded himself. The Old Man’s dead and gone.

As his thoughts were successfully returned to the present, he sat up again. He dropped his comm back onto the night stand. Throwing the bedthings to their habitual lump, he leaped from the bed and jogged to the closet-hole. Within jiffs he had slipped a liner over his naked body. Its automatic heat-cling comforted his nightmare-sore body like a thin blanket.

Thus clothed, Nathan exited and entered the entertainment room. In keeping with the dimensions of his bedroom and bathroom, this main area was about large enough to be called a nook rather than a full-sized room. He quickly crossed to the food station within the wall and pushed the button marked burrito.

A sickening grinding sound met his ears, as usual. He gritted his teeth and silently prayed to Sirius Sustenance Supply, that he could continue putting off replacing their barely-functioning model for one more day.

Within seconds and despite uninterrupted mechanical protests, a mostly-cooked tortilla-wrapped bundle dropped into the vending area. He cracked open the translucent door and retrieved it. It was somewhat frozen still, in the middle, but a warmer temperature setting would only serve to burn the outsides. He also considered these results a decent answer to prayers, given that he’d be late waiting for a fully-hot burrito to cool enough to eat it.

Nathan stood, eating bites and drinking occasional bursts from the wall fountain to the right of the food dispenser. Mentally, he went over his list of daily tasks. He’d attended the interview, removed the suit and skin, napped, dressed, and was now eating. By next tick he needed to be walking, or he was likely to arrive late.

“Choms just wants an excuse to fire us,” he mumbled, bitterly. Only last week, two of his peers had been dismissed over trivial issues. One had forgotten his rags; upon returning after retrieval, he was given Notice. The other had been two minutes late, and showed up in another business’ liner.

“It’s not like anyone sees us,” Nathan noted, as if he could possibly speak to or defend anyone involved in the terminations.

He heard a chirp from the watch, though it was muted and distant. He stuffed the last of the burrito in his mouth and returned to his bedroom. The watch must have not been fully strapped on, and had pulled loose with his twisting movements. Finally, he found it under his pillow. He studied the time: 2:46 p.m.

“Zut!” He exclaimed. Quickly, he docked the comm. After looking furtively about in suspicion, he pressed a small knob in the wood just beneath the night stand’s top surface. A drawer popped open; revealing faded photographs, sundry envelopes, a dried flower or two, and another comm.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XIII.
Read to Skinwalkers, XV.